GDC 2016 Wrap-Up

I’ve been to five GDCs now and each one has been different, and each one has been much, much better than the previous one.

This year I livetweeted over a dozen sessions I attended for those stuck back home without access to the vault. You can find them all here:

This year VR was huge. I initially thought VRDC would kind of segregate or corral VR people into their own separate, smaller conference but I was wrong. VR was everywhere, and lines for their talks filled up the hallways. I stayed away from them in general, since I worked in VR for the year prior to moving to Ubisoft and don’t really carry much developer interest in it anymore. (Small indie studios, please stop just testing sim sickness on yourselves. Test a wider range of people. Your products are going to give VR a bad name.)

I also saw lots of long lines for some of the indie summit business or marketing oriented talks, which obviously don’t carry much interest to me. I ended up only attending one indie talk – on procedural generation – and leaving the rest to catch up on the vault.

I filled Monday and Tuesday with a ton of talks from the Narrative Design summit. I had never attended it before but looking through the vault from previous years had stemmed my excitement because they largely seemed to be talks for writers with very little on design. This year felt different – it felt like design, systems, and narrative structure in games were at the forefront. My favorite talks were in the Narrative Design track, including my best-of-GDC award for “Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond” by Meg Jayanth, which delved into ways the player lacked power over NPC stories.

One of the trends I’m seeing from the Narrative Showcase, the narrative-focused games up for IGF and on the show floor, and the conversations I had around me is that systems are becoming a lot more integrated into narrative, and there’s a lot of narrative innovation coming out that is very specific to games. This might be my own biases sneaking in since I love interactive narrative so much.

Beyond the sessions, this year I attended a couple break-out sessions in the park organized somewhat spontaneously. Alex Jaffe from Spryfox organized a system designer hangout one morning, and Emily Short organized a group interested in procedural interactive fiction. Both were better than the official roundtable formats, since they encouraged mingling and smaller groups of similar interests rather than a handful of people dominating the conversation. Tying into my prior remark about narrative systems – the procgen IF group was huge, and the system designer group pretty much talked about procedural narrative and social simulation half the time. I suspect the rise of the “roguelike” and success developers have been making with procedural content is on a collision course with the narrative-focused developers. To be fair, I’m pretty trendy too – the last side project I made was a procedural interactive fiction game.

As usual, I said yes to any opportunity to do outreach. Last year I talked with IGDA scholars, and this year I spoke with women scholars from Diversi, a group that helped a whole bunch of students and scholars in games (and games-adjacent) programs attend GDC. This year I also was recruited to talk to a crowd in a less formal Q&A with two of the creative directors from Ubisoft Toronto – I think it went well, but I had to defer answers to others fairly often with my limited experience at the studio. For the first time I got on the list to attend the Women in Games Luncheon hosted by Microsoft and I definitely appreciated that outreach (in spite of their pretty epic stumble at their party the same night).

I did give a talk this year as part of Richard Rouse’s “Rules of the Game” microtalks. While I think the content is solid, I also think I flubbed a bit on my delivery (I think my 10min talk went to 13min). You can find my slides (as well as the other speakers) on his website here (direct download):

This is also the first GDC where “I know you from twitter!” almost became a meme for me. It was great but also kind of awkward – I don’t know how to respond and my instinct is to question, “Do I tweet too much?” In the end it doesn’t bother me too much, and it was great to put names to lots of faces I’ve chatted with online. It’s even cooler when someone I want to meet from twitter also just happens to want to meet me for the same reason, and I found myself in a few ‘consultation’-like meetings where I let people extract whatever they wanted from my brain and vice-versa. Someone even brought me a birthday cake (no, I did not eat the whole thing). For all its flaws, twitter has been invaluable for making friends with like-minded designers.

There was one big downside to the whole conference: I was sick. Now, it wasn’t the GDC flu and thankfully I’ve avoided that. But I have had real issues sleeping starting about a month ago which means that almost every day at GDC there was a window of time where I started to fall asleep where I sat, regardless of how exciting the talk was or how hard I tried to stay awake. I was exhausted in the evenings and couldn’t stay out too late at parties, and I had about an hour commute on BART to the couch I stayed on at a friend’s house. I don’t really have a lesson here other than it’s hard to attend GDC without your full health and know when to take a break and take it easy.

That’s all. Fingers crossed I will be there again next year.

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